Sunday 6 November 2016
All Saints Sunday
The world we live in can be a frightening one. Right now, where we are, on the cusp of a Presidential election, it is easy to see. Anxiety is running high on all sides. Much of the campaign has operated by appealing to people’s fears. On the one side we are encouraged to fear the other. Our fear of terrorism should lead us to fear all Muslims. Our fear of economic insecurity should lead us to fear all immigrants. Our fear of crime should lead us to fear those who look different than we do. We are to fear what America has become. On the other side we are encouraged to fear what might be if the nation changes course. Fear of a return to more open, violent racism. Fear of an economic apocalypse. Fear of an unstable foreign policy. There are positive arguments to be made. Often those positive arguments have been made. But the message that breaks through the chatter, the message that sells is the message of fear. And so fear is what we hear, and fear is what we feel. Now certainly, there are things worth being afraid of. But fear, whether justified or not, has tendency to make more distrustful than we ought be, to generalize and stereotype more than we ought, to act with malice and violence when what is really needed understanding and a bit of grace.
The everyday peasants in first-century Palestine also lived in a frightening world. By the time of Jesus’ ministry, they had been under the rule of the Roman Occupation for nearly a century. The independent Jewish kingdom that had stood for 100 years had been conquered, and in it’s place, the Romans had appointed a foreigner named Herod as the so-called “King of the Jews.” Since then, they had been ruled by a series of competing Herodian kings and Roman military governors, who had little interest in the people, except for the wealth that they could squeeze out of them. Life was hard. Taxes were high. And although there was nominal peace under the Pax Romana, there were still bandits and rebels in the hill country. And besides, peace that was brought at the hands of a foreign oppressor could hardly be considered peace.
In this world of Roman rule, there was a widening gap between the rich and the poor. Those who worked with the occupation—collaborators who helped to keep the people in line—could expect to the be rewarded with considerable power and wealth. And the power that they gained, they used to squeeze the peasants, and to gain more wealth.
For the followers of Jesus, most of whom were low-class peasants, there were enemies on every side. They were under the control of foreigners, and any of their countrymen who had any power to effect change had already sided with the invaders. Their culture and their lifestyle were under attack, and they had no where to turn, no one to defend them.
So you can imagine when news of a Messiah came long, the one who had come to free and redeem Israel, many people were excited to hear it. Huge crowds showed up to hear this Jesus and to see how he planned to bring freedom and justice back to the people. Would he lead them in a military uprising against the Romans, and restore an independent Jewish state? This is what many were hoping for from the Messiah. A great general and king who would unite and defend Israel, like King David had in ancient times. This Messiah, this Son of David, would surely lead them in victorious battle against their enemies, would surely make them strong again, and drive all fear from their land.
But Jesus had a surprising message for them. And at first, it sounded promising. “Blessed are the poor; yours is the kingdom of God. But woe to the rich, you have already received your reward. Blessed are the hungry; you will be filled. But woe to those who are full, for you will be hungry. Blessed are the marginalized and the hated and excluded, but woe to those who are praised in the halls of power.” Those sound like the words of a revolutionary. Those sound like the words of someone who is going to rise up against the rich and elevate the poor and the oppressed. Those sound like the words of a general, a leader, a king.
But then come words that are even more shocking than the revolutionary words that came before: “Love your enemies.” What happened to our victorious leader, the one who was going to bring justice to our enemies? “Love your enemies,” he says now. Maybe I prefer Psalm 139:22, “I hate your enemies with a perfect hatred.” What about that Jesus? Surely you must be mistaken.
But Jesus says, “Do good to those who hate you.” You’ve got to be kidding. Do good to those who hate me? It’s not enough to have to love them? Now I actually have to go out of my way to do good to them? No, Jesus, this can’t be right.
But Jesus says, “Bless those who curse you.” Now that’s going too far. It’s one thing to act nicely in public to those who are against me. But now I also have to bless them? I have to wish well for them? Even when they are wishing evil on me and trying to destroy me? This is not what I signed up for, Jesus.
But Jesus says, “Pray for those who persecute you.” Right. I’ll pray for them to go to hell. Does that sound alright? Honestly Jesus, I think you’ve lost it. Are you trying to fail? Do you want everyone to walk all over you? Aren’t you going to stand up for yourself, defend yourself when people attack you? Aren’t you going to strike back? What about “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”? What about justice?
But Jesus says, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Even when they aren’t doing unto me as they would have me do unto them? That’s not fair. It’s not right, why should I have to do that if nobody else is doing it? Why should I have to stick my neck out?
“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you…. Do to others as you would have them do to you.” It is just that simple. And it is just that difficult. What Jesus asks of us is not easy, not easy in the least. It requires a sacrifice from us. And it makes us act against just about everything that our culture tells us to do.
When someone wrongs us, the usual reaction is to fight back, to throw back insult for insult, to hold on to our grudges and wait for an opportune time for revenge. When there is crime in our community, the usual reaction is to fight it: stricter penalties, more enforcement, more locks and fences and walls. When we see evil or injustice in the world, the usual reaction is to attack, to destroy the evil-doers, to try to rain down freedom with bombs and bullets. When we see political insults hurled, the usual reaction is to demonize everyone on the other side, assume the very worst of people, and hurl back insult for insult.
Jesus asks something very difference. Jesus asks us to reach out instead. If you have an enemy, be the first one to speak words of compassion, even if your offer is rejected. If you are afraid of someone, be the first to reach out in love, even if your love is not reciprocated. If you are at war, be the first to offer terms of peace, even if they are not accepted.
Jesus asks us to end the cycle of hatred and violence. He asks us to be courageous and not to return evil for evil, even when we have cause. He asks us to be brave and offer friendship, even when all that we have received is meanness. He asks us to be mature and say, “Enough is enough. The conflict ends here. Enough people have already been hurt. Enough evil has already been perpetrated. I will not perpetuate this madness.”
It’s a bit ironic that a Hindu man from India understood this part of the Christian tradition better than most of us do. “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind,” he said. That man was, of course, Mahatma Gandhi. And his words and his philosophy of nonviolence reflect very well the words of Jesus. Love your enemies. Do not return evil for evil. Do good to those who hate you. Pray for those who persecute you.
It is just that simple. It is just that difficult. But, with God’s help, we can do it, one step at a time. We do it when we forgive that person who wronged us in the past. They don’t even know what they did, but we remember, and it effects every interaction we have with them. But when we forgive and offer a new start, we walk the Jesus way.
We do it when we stop and really listen to someone we disagree with. It may be obvious in our head that anyone who disagrees with us is just wrongheaded, maybe even evil. But of course, they don’t think they’re evil. And if we take the time to listen, we may still disagree strongly, but we can at least have some understanding and treat each other like humans. When we listen beyond our ideology, we walk the Jesus way.
We do it when we seek to understand those who seem very foreign to us. The things that we have grown up with seem normal to us. And without even thinking about it, the things that are familiar start to seem right. And just as quickly, things that seem unfamiliar become wrong, even evil. And yet, we know that every human being is made in the image of God. We know, when we take the time to find out, that we all have hopes and dreams and aspirations, and in many ways we are more similar than we acknowledge. And the things that make us different do not need to make us enemies. Different can be good. Different can be interesting. Different can be strong. When we seek to love those who are different, we walk the Jesus way.
Through Christ Jesus, we can. We can love our enemies. We can do good to those who hate us. We can bless those who curse us. We can pray for those who persecute us. And by and through that power of Jesus, we can be set free from our fear, be set free from our hatred, be set free from our violence in order to live a life of love, peace, and faith, in order to walk the Jesus way.